Milwaukee needs to lose its rail phobia

    Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker says he is looking for new federal dollars to bail out the County’s struggling bus system.

    This is strange because Milwaukee is already sitting on $91.5 million in federal money to enhance and upgrade transportation in our community.

    My plan to use that $91.5 million would provide the county with about the same amount of money Walker says he needs from the feds for buses, and use the rest to introduce a starter rail system to Milwaukee.

    Scott could have millions for buses today, yet he has rejected my plan. He has also turned down my repeated offers for him and I to simply agree to disagree, split the $91.5 million, and go our separate ways.

    The reason for these odd actions is clear, and has nothing to do with buses. County Executive Walker is vehemently opposed to rail in our community, and he seems content to leave $91.5 million in federal money for Milwaukee tied up forever to ensure he kills rail.

    This makes no sense, because right now rail transit is triggering billions of dollars in economic development, business growth and job creation in cities of all sizes and types from every part of the country.

    It’s time for Milwaukee to break from the old, reflexive anti-rail thinking of yesterday. It’s time for Milwaukee to get over its rail-phobia, move boldly into the future and reap the massive benefits of rail – just like these other cities:

    • Portland, Ore. – $2.3 billion in private investment and development in areas served by the city’s first streetcar line.
    • Denver, Colo. – $4 billion in private investment in downtown and nearby neighborhoods thanks in large part to modern transit system.
    • Dallas, Texas – As of 2003, $1 billion in new development around Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) rail stations.
      Charlotte, N.C. – 7,000 new housing units planned along the city’s Blue Line, and ridership now stands at 13,000 riders daily – 4,000 more riders per day than previously estimated.
    • Minneapolis, Minn. – 12,000 housing units and 1 million square feet of commercial space built, under construction, or proposed within a 1/2-mile radius of Hiawatha rail line stations.
    • Little Rock, Ark. – $300 million in new construction since city’s streetcar line was built.
      Indianapolis, Ind. – Features a downtown rail system and currently considering a downtown streetcar system as part of a comprehensive transit plan very similar to the Barrett plan.
    • Phoenix, Ariz – The new rail system is not yet completed, but already it has sparked $6 billion in development as new housing, offices and mixed-use buildings are being built along the rail line.

    Buses are essential, and we should absolutely invest to keep the bus system viable.


    But different modes of transit accomplish different things, and rail is better at sparking economic development. In the words of Greg Hnedak, who planned Memphis’ highly successful streetcar system, "Buses are cheaper, but when you put rails down, you have made a permanent commitment, and developers can see that commitment. Rail lines become development corridors."

    And rail attracts more riders. "People who wouldn’t ride a bus will ride a streetcar," says Michael Burns, general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

    As a result, rail systems make a city more attractive to open or relocate a business, more appealing to talented workers searching for a place to live, and they make a city more attractive and friendly to visit – all of which will create jobs up and down the socioeconomic ladder.

    So the next time someone tells you that buses can accomplish what rail can, think about this summary from Paul Weyrich, a noted conservative activist and researcher, no less:

    "Rails are a must. You cannot turn a bus into a streetcar for the same reason you cannot make a sow’s ear into a silk purse: the original material always shows through."

    Milwaukee needs a strong bus system, and we should invest part of the $91.5 million in buses.

    But it’s also time for Milwaukee to move past its rail-phobia and develop a rail system that will generate enormous economic development for our community.

    Tom Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee.

    Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

    Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

    No posts to display